President Obama may be temporarily out of the Washington political maelstrom, but he used his soapbox from the NATO summit Saturday to throw a punch at Republicans holding up ratification of one of his stand-out foreign policy achievements.
In his regular Saturday radio address, Mr. Obama turned the tables on Republican senators who are balking at ratifying a new nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia, saying they were turning their backs on the world-without-nukes vision of one their heroes, President Reagan.
In the address – which aired as Obama took part Saturday in a meeting bringing together NATO leaders and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev – the president described the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) as part of a bipartisan foreign policy goal of nuclear disarmament going back through five administrations to Mr. Reagan. Obama said those Republican senators who favor putting off a START ratification vote until next year were abandoning Reagan’s nuclear disarmament policy of “trust but verify.”
Obama and President Medvedev signed the new treaty in April, but it still requires Senate ratification – with a two-thirds vote – to take effect. The old START treaty expired at the end of 2009. Since then provisions for mutual weapons inspections are in limbo, and the US has lost its ability to verify Russian disarmament activity.
Obama had hoped to bring to the weekend’s NATO summit in Portugal the certainty that new START would be ratified in Congress’s lame-duck session. Improved relations with Russia are one of the few bright spots on Obama’s foreign-policy ledger, but some US officials and US-Russia experts have suggested the warming could go cold if START is relegated to an uncertain future next year.
The US political squabble did not appear to be affecting Russia’s Western engagement yet, if events in Lisbon are any indication.
Russia offers more cooperation on Afghanistan
At the NATO-Russia Council meeting Saturday, Russia formally agreed to ramp up its cooperation with NATO on Afghanistan. Russia will allow more supplies for NATO forces to pass through its territory, and for the first time will allow non-lethal military equipment leaving Afghanistan to exit through Russia. Russia will also join in the training of Afghan antinarcotics agents.
The expanded cooperation followed signing of a “long-term partnership” between NATO and Afghanistan that is designed to underpin the Afghan government and security forces as NATO gradually transitions out of its military role by the end of 2014.
The summit’s morning session on Afghanistan included the participation of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who had to navigate the conflicting currents of needing foreign military support on the one hand while desiring full sovereignty for his country on the other.
Karzai thanked the 48 countries taking part in the international effort – and pointedly their taxpayers – for supporting Afghanistan. But he also hinted at the tensions that have roiled relations recently when he spoke of “concerns about civilian casualties, detentions, and at times NATO’s posture.”
Last week Karzai said he opposed a recent uptick in night raids used to flush out insurgents, and he demanded a lower profile for NATO and US troops.
That lower profile may be coming, but over a matter of years instead of immediately. The new NATO-Afghan partnership envisions a gradual transfer of security responsibility over to the Afghan army and police over the next four years.
As one NATO senior official said, the number of international troops is now at 140,000 with completion of the US “surge” of troops earlier this year, “and it’s not going to come down fast and soon.”
As for the lingering perception in some quarters that 2011 would mark NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, the official said next year will simply mark the beginning of a transition to an Afghan-led effort that will only be completed at the end of 2014.
Afghanistan will need assistance 'for many years to come'
“If the insurgents think July 2011 is the date of our departure, they are in for a very unpleasant surprise,” the official said, adding, “We all know Afghanistan is going to need our assistance for many years to come.” He cited an IMF report, for example, that found Afghanistan is unlikely to be able to independently maintain its security forces – the army and the police – until at least 2023.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen confirmed that NATO plans to be a long-term presence in NATO, even if the Alliance’s combat role concludes by end 2014. Beginning next year NATO will shift to a focus on training, with Afghan forces taking the security lead as conditions and their preparedness allow.
The point that Afghan preparedness will be key in determining how soon the leadership transition proceeds was underscored at various levels. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, also at the Afghanistan meeting, said the transfer to Afghan security forces “must be guided by realities, not calendars.”
Mr. Rasmussen then sent a direct message, just in case some elements in Afghanistan’s conflict missed the point.
“This is a partnership that will endure beyond our combat mission,” he said. “If the Taliban or anyone else plans to wait us out, they can forget it.”